SEATTLE — Doug Baldwin sat in the cramped visiting locker room still in his shoulder pads. As he talked minutes removed from Seattle’s thrilling comeback at Houston three weeks ago, his voice took on a biting intensity.
“In the fourth quarter, he just had that look in his eyes,” Baldwin said. “He said, ‘Screw it. If I can’t get time, I’ll find time.’ And he did that with his legs. He kept drives alive. It’s unreal. To have a guy like that, you just can’t help but feed off of it. We’ll run through a wall for this man.”
He was referring, of course, to quarterback Russell Wilson, who grabbed a bucket in the fourth quarter and bailed out Seattle’s offense. But there was something else about Wilson’s performance.
Wilson was statistically underwhelming. He passed for a season-low 123 yards, had his worst quarterback rating and tossed more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time all year. But he also made some of the game’s most important plays with his legs and single-handedly propelled Seattle’s offense at times.
This is the debate many have waged six games into Wilson’s sophomore season. Has he made big plays under duress even though his stats aren’t gaudy, or has he not made the improvement many were hoping for?
Wilson has played this season inside a vacuum of expectation. But to judge Wilson on his stats is missing the bigger picture.
Take the Houston game. Wilson faced constant pressure. Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt and Co. wrecked Seattle’s offensive line featuring three backups. Wilson hardly had time to set his feet.
But it might have been his best game of the season. In the fourth quarter, with the offensive line leaking and Seattle needing points, Wilson realized he needed his legs, not his arm, to move the ball. So he scrambled for 74 yards in the final quarter and overtime, changing the way he likes to play to suit what Seattle needed.
It just wasn’t pretty in the traditional box score.
“Russell’s play was off the charts,” coach Pete Carroll said. “I don’t even know what his numbers were; it didn’t matter. You had to watch the game to see the things he did to give us a chance.”
Wilson has played most of the year behind an offensive line featuring at least two backups. He has been one of the league’s most pressured quarterbacks. When he had a healthy offensive line, in the season opener, he passed for a career-high 320 yards and completed 76 percent of his passes.
Since then, his reality has changed. He hasn’t been able to comfortably sit in the pocket and go through his progressions or roll out uncontested off play-action. It’s no coincidence that he’s had at least 10 carries in three straight games after doing so only once last season.
He has evolved with new demands and shaped his game to give Seattle the best chance to win.
“I don’t know anybody I’d like to have back there more when the heat’s on,” Carroll said. “He has a variety of solutions to the problems.”
Pro Football Focus ranks Wilson as the 12th-best quarterback in the league. That’s also where he is ranked if you go by the standard quarterback rating. Pro Football Outsiders has him 13th in the league, and ESPN’s in-house quarterback rating system slots him 10th.
The argument centered on the modesty of Wilson’s passing numbers is fundamentally off base. For starters, as Tom Jackson said on ESPN before the Indianapolis game after reading some of Wilson’s stats, “Doesn’t sound like much, but he understands winning football.”
Wilson’s numbers are similar to last year’s. Crucial this season has been his ability to eliminate game-altering mistakes. He is not a perfect decision-maker. There have been times when he has missed open reads, including in Sunday’s game against Tennessee. But he has largely avoided the killer mistakes that often lose games.
“He’s the most poised young kid I’ve ever given a cheap shot to,” former Jets linebacker Bart Scott said on CBS earlier this year. “I gave him a great cheap shot last year, and he said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Scott.’ You can’t rattle this kid.”
Wilson’s four interceptions through six games rank in the bottom half of the league, and even those are worthy of further dissection.
All have come on third or fourth down, meaning Wilson hasn’t forced unnecessary throws with downs to spare. “He doesn’t put his defense in a bind,” former NFL coach and current NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci said.
One interception came in the final minute of the Indianapolis game, when Wilson threw the ball up for grabs on fourth down. Another came on 3rd and 13 when he threw a pass deep into San Francisco territory, and receiver Golden Tate slipped.
The most damning came against Jacksonville, when Wilson rolled out under pressure in his own end zone and tried to throw back across the middle of the field. That set up a Jacksonville touchdown.
But more often than not, Wilson has allowed the Seahawks defense to keep games close until the offense can click, like a fighter hanging in until the later rounds.
“I can tell you one thing,” safety Earl Thomas said. “When it’s crunchtime, everybody needs to know that he always puts us in a position to win. You can’t ask anything else out of your quarterback.”
There are several factors Carroll is looking for when evaluating Wilson, but the one he kept circling back to might be the most important: Is he a factor in the game?
It sounds so simple, but Carroll is cognizant of how involved Wilson is throughout a game. If Carroll doesn’t think Seattle is getting Wilson involved enough, he’s on his headset talking with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
That’s what happened against Houston in the fourth quarter and again in the second quarter against Tennessee after Seattle primarily ran the ball early. On Seattle’s first drive of the second quarter, Wilson completed five of six passes and scrambled two other times during the 12-play touchdown drive. He accounted for 67 of 74 yards.
“If we give him a chance,” Carroll said, “he’s going to factor in every football game. He seems to do that. That’s the important thing to see in forecasting if it’s going in the right direction.”